Reeling from the rhetorical toxicity of the 2004 election, some members of the punditocracy, tiring of red-versus-blue gridlock and convinced the problem must be the message and not the messengers, began to wonder aloud if it’s still possible to convince anyone of anything in today’s America. For political documentarians seeking cooler temperatures after the year of Fahrenheit 9/11, it’s a practical matter: how to transcend partisanship without losing sight of the very real issues at stake in the argument?
Co-directors Garrett Scott and Ian Olds suggest one solution in the terrific Occupation: Dreamland, a fair-minded (but hardly apolitical) grunt’s-eye view of the war in Iraq that trusts the audience to draw its own conclusions. The filmmakers lived with members of the army’s 82nd Airborne Division near Falluja for several weeks in early 2004, just months prior to the coalition siege that led to the partial destruction of the city. We get to know several of the unit’s colorful personalities as they go about the occupation routine: after-dark raids rendered in night vision green, a weekly gig providing security for city council meetings, and—in keeping with the nature of asymmetrical modern warfare—a whole lot of sitting around waiting to be attacked.
Indeed, boredom seems to be the primary mode here. Contrary to the Pentagon line, the soldiers seem less concerned about home front criticism of the war than about their efforts simply going unnoticed by a self- absorbed civilian population. As one puts it, “People want their steak, but they don’t want to know how that cow gets butchered.” One bit of downtime finds the squad members arguing over the merits of the occupation. The ranking sergeant’s somewhat hesitant warning against on-camera criticism of the administration provides a comic segue to another soldier blasting Cheney and Halliburton in private. Coercion also comes in more passive-aggressive forms—as in the endless string of mandatory meetings held to discourage troops from getting out of the army at the end of their enlistments (at least three soldiers featured in the film have done just that).
Given the avowed anti-war sympathies of both directors, administration apologists may wish to write off Dreamland as a cynical attempt to outflank the support-the-troops crowd, but Scott and Olds make no attempt to pass off the soldiers’ doubts as a political argument (and indeed, others speak in favor of the invasion). The movie gains anti-war traction by keeping its focus on the ground, avoiding a conscious agenda even as it undercuts a key assumption behind the administration’s “stay the course” argument: that the situation in Iraq is improving. We hear a litany of complaints from locals about basics like water, gas, electricity, and security and come to understand how the lack of concrete results in these areas has damaged Iraqis’ perception of their alleged benefactors. As one soldier says, “They don’t give a shit about us.”
The Dreamland of the title refers to the unit’s nickname for the former Baathist resort that serves as its barracks and to Bush’s delusional view of Iraq that, among other things, forecast that the American invaders would be greeted as liberators. What they have become, of course, is occupiers, forced to humiliate their hosts just to guarantee their own security. We watch the soldiers raiding houses, taking women prisoner over the strenuous objections of the local men, and in retrospectively chilling imagery, placing hoods over the faces of captives. One doesn’t need foreknowledge of Falluja’s bloody fate to sense a storm coming.